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Byways of the Scottish Border
Flodden's Fatal Field


FEW even in summer-time are the pilgrims who make their way to the scene of the overthrow of James IV.; and as the days shorten towards the end of autumn the paths to the spot are trodden by fewer still. Yet here, next only to Melrose itself, culminates the interest of the storied and lonely Borderland, thick-strewn as the region is with old-world memories. The disaster of no other spot has made so deep a dint in the shield of Scottish history; and the name of no other field in Scotland, perhaps, has been so often enshrined in sad and heroic song. Who is there that has not been thrilled by the stirring tale of Marmion, and who has not been touched to something of the tenderness of long-past sorrow by the lament for the Flowers of the Forest? In late autumn the foliage which clothes the fateful hill assumes its richest glory of russet and red, and the air has an ambient clearness and pensive softness unknown at other seasons of the year. Nevertheless, the pedestrian travelling eastwards towards Flodden in the latter end of October will probably pass no other pilgrim on the road.

Fire and foray in ancient times have more than once scorched most of the Borderside, and the road descending from among the Cheviots along the left bank of the Bowmont Water passes through one of the districts laid waste in 1570 by Queen Elizabeth’s general, the Earl of Sussex, in the campaign of retaliation already referred to. The more peaceful it seems now by contrast—a finely pastoral country, resonant only with the plaintive bleating of sheep. Excepting this sound, indeed, the region is strangely silent, impressing one with its loneliness. Only at long intervals do farms appear, nestling in the hollows, and hardly even a solitary stone-breaker can be found by the way to point out the spot where the road crosses the Border into Northumberland. Far in front, untrodden by any wayfarer, the highway is to be seen rising and falling between crimson - hawed hedges, over hill and dale. Even the ubiquitous tramp is to be met with here but seldom.

It is shortly after passing a graveyard, tangle-grown and man-forsaken, forgotten like the dead who lie in it, that the road for Flodden turns off up the sloping country to the right. Brankston is the hamlet nearest to the battle-field, and the road thither ascends for two miles through pleasant high-hedged parish lanes. Here the English accent can be distinctly recognised, and the place wears quite an English aspect, though it is little more than within the border of Northumberland.

The little English hamlet seems asleep to-day among its autumn flowers — yellow roses and yellower marigolds; but rough and sudden was the fray the spot once saw. For here, during the boyhood of James V., in 1524, a body of five hundred Scots, setting out on a private filibustering raid across the Border, were met and driven back by the English warden.

At last, from a little cluster of labourers’ cottages, a path strikes to the right across a rushy meadow, and beyond, above the scar of a red - stone quarry, hang silent and motionless the woods of Flodden hill. Somewhere to the right of the rushy meadow, at the foot of the hill slope, raged the fiercest of the battle on the dire and eventful day, and the tiny streamlet meandering through the hollow ran purple then with the blood of fallen men. From this streamlet it was that Lady Clare, in ‘Marmion,’ shrank when she came to dip the helmet of the dying lord. And just within the shady edge of the wood above, dark and cool under the drooping creepers of the overhanging bank, flows the limpid well at which she is pictured as fulfilling her task. The clear water drops musical there over the mossy edge of its stone basin, into the pool below; and behind, carved in the wall of the well’s recess, may be read a garbled version of the lines quoted by Scott:

Drink, weary pilgrim, drink and pray
For the kind soul of Sybil Grey.
Who built this cross and well!

The cross has disappeared, and the present inscription has been traced by the chisel of one who did not believe in praying for souls. An ancient stone bench remains there, however, and the pilgrim could hardly find a more suggestive resting-place.

An isolated headland pointing south, Flodden projects up the valley of the Till. Northern fir and yew, mingled with the English oak, now cover the hill; but these are probably of modern growth, and at the time of the battle it is most likely that the summit of the spur was covered only with native heath and fern. A matchless site the spot was for a camp, and, commanding the valley as it did for miles on every side, its choice bespoke the instinct of military genius. Yet here, strange contradiction, during the three fateful days before the conflict in 1513, the Scottish host was left to melt and dwindle, while the King, like Israel’s love-sick Samson of old, remained dallying with the fair but artful lady of Ford close by.

No suspicion of ulterior purpose on this lady’s part seems to have dawned upon the mind of James, though he must have remembered that William Heron, her husband, lay his prisoner at Fast. There apparently happened at Flodden, indeed, exactly that series of events which had been foreseen by some sagacious mind in Scotland before James set forth on his ill-advised expedition. Whoever was its author — Queen Margaret, Sir David Lyndsay, or some unknown person — the mysterious attempt which had been made to dissuade the king from his enterprise was entirely justified by the sequel of events. Readers of Scott are familiar with the episode as "Sir David Lyndsay’s Tale," in ‘Marmion’ (Canto IV.), but it appears in even more picturesque fashion in the narratives of Pitscottie and Buchanan. According to the contemporary Pitscottie, James, on the eve of setting out for England, was attending prayers in St Michael’s Kirk at Linlithgow, when there came in at the kirk door a tall man, bareheaded, roughly clad in a blue gown, and belted about the middle with a roll of linen cloth, with brotikins (half-boots) on his feet, and a pike-staff in his hand, "cryand and spearand for the king." Approaching James, he with little reverence laid his arm on the royal praying-desk. "Sir King," he said, "my mother hath sent me to you, desiring you not to pass at this time where thou art purposed; for if thou dost, thou wilt not fare well in thy journey, nor none that passeth with thee. Further, she bade ye melle with no woman, nox use their counsell, nor let them touch thy body nor thou theirs; for, and thou do it, thou will be confounded and brought to shame." "Be this man," the historian goes on, "had spoken thir words unto the King’s Grace, the Even-song was neere doone, and the King paused on thir words, studying to give him an answer; but in the meantime, before the King’s eyes, and in presence of all the lords that were about him for the time, this man vanished away, and could no wayes be seene nor comprehended, but vanished away as he had been ane blink of the sunne, or ane whiss of the whirlwind, and could no more be seene."

So James had been warned, but with the fate of all who are "fey," the warning was useless to him. And during those three days of strange inaction the ominous thunder-cloud of disaster was gathering and darkening round Flodden.

Centuries before, the blood of more than one great battle had been received by that "deep and dark and sullen" river below. Ten miles away to the south, where the stream first takes the name of Till, lies the spot thought to have been that Brunanburgh where in 925 the Saxon Athelstane defeated the Danish king of Northumberland and his Cymric allies—a pregnant fight, for it entailed the final overthrow of the ancient Cymric kingdom of Strathclyde, the last remnant of the great upbuilding of King Arthur.1 [1 See Skene’s Celtic Scotland and Four Ancient Books of Wales] .And a little nearer, to the north of Wooler, where the Till receives the waters of the Glen, rises Homildon, now Humbleheugh, the scene, according to tradition, of King Arthur’s first great battle,2 [2 battle, which Nennius (Historia Britonum) simply says was fought "in ostium fluminis quod dicitur Glein," may have taken place at the mouth of the Glen which flows into the Irvine in L.oudon parish in Ayrshire. This was the view of Skene, the greatest authority on the subject.] and the spot where one of the Douglases was defeated by the archers of Hotspur, in Parthian fashion, never getting near enough to strike a blow.

And on the hill’s brow here, where the russet bracken grows breast high now, and an absolute silence reigns in the sunshine save when a grey dove hurtles off among the trees, one can imagine James IV. standing among his nobles on that far-off September morning, watching Surrey’s army on the other side of the Till come glancing down the valley from Barmore Wood. The King’s position was impregnable, with Scotland behind, and the deep river on his left below; but—whether owing to recklessness, or Quixotic chivalry, or some knightly vaunt to the witching lady of Ford, no one now can tell—he, as every reader of history knows, allowed Surrey to outflank him.

While executing this manoeuvre the English general was fully exposed to the fire of the Scottish artillery, had the King chosen to give the word; for the river runs close beneath Flodden side, and the valley grows narrower at the spot. But the word was not given, and the southern host marched past, a gallant sight, with flashing mail and glittering lines of spears, squadron by squadron and brigade after brigade, down the river bank; The Till was too deep to ford, and the only passage over it was by a narrow bridge at Twizel Castle, near the Tweed, six miles to the Scottish rear. This bridge could have been destroyed in ten minutes by the cannon of the King, but the order to do so was not sent. Slowly the English host defiled across, company by company; and the bridge is standing yet. Well might Marmion’s squire Fitz-Eustace, coming presently, as Scott pictures him, upon the scene, exclaim in amazement:

"My basnet to a prentice cap,
Lord Surrey’s o’er the Till!"

Then at last, when all too late, James awoke, and the Scottish host, setting fire to its tents, marched back down the hill - slope northwards amid the rolling smoke.

Surrey now, in battle array, was descending into the same hollow from the opposite hillside; and the two armies rapidly drew near each other.

For a little space, as the scene may be imagined, there was silence; only, amid the shadows could be heard the tread of the approaching hosts. Here, however, presently, a spear point glittered out into the sunshine; there loomed the dark mass of a moving column. Then slowly the smoke drifted up, and the armies saw each other. Broad lines and deep were there confronted. Many a famous pennon, the chivalry of the north, fluttered round the ruddy Lion of the King; while opposite heaved upon the gentle wind the great banner of Henry the Eighth.

There was a moment of pause as the smoke lifted, but only a moment, and then with terrific onset the clans were upon the English wing — the clans of the Scottish left, under Huntley and Home — cutting it to pieces. Furious work it was — a minute’s deafening crash of broadswords and battle-axes; and Sir Edmund Howard’s division broke before them and disappeared. Then! then! — had the clansmen turned and renewed their rush against the next brigade, the day had been over and the issue different. For the High Admiral’s flank lay open beside them, and nothing could have withstood the onset of these claymores of the North. But alas! close by lay the baggage of the English host, and the Highlanders were already deep among gay doublets and silken hose. Then Lord Dacre’s horse rode up from the rear, and the opportunity was past.

With speed, to turn the fortune of the day, Admiral Howard had charged; and the next Scottish division under Crawford and Montrose gave way before his onset. At the same time, far along the sloping hillside, the half-armed Islemen on the Scottish right had wildly rushed, like a billow of their own Atlantic, had broken, and lost themselves upon the steady hillmen of Sir Edward Stanley, and under the deadly arrowflights from the bows of Lancashire.

There remained then only the King’s array in the centre, containing the flower of the army and of Scotland. Here James himself fought on foot under the royal standard, while about him gathered the noblest and bravest of his realm. And now, exasperated by the ceaseless arrowflights of the English bowmen, and burning to retrieve the honour of the field, this compact body, levelling their spears, rushed fiercely against the opposing division, where Surrey himself commanded.

Wild and terrible in the setting sun must have been that onslaught. Many a gallant crest went down in Surrey’s ranks, and for a time the English standard was in danger; for Bothwell had advanced with his reserve, and the Scots nobles fought with all the fire of their high blood. But the far-spreading wings of the English host closed around them like waves of the sea, and, attacked on every side, their utmost valour could but be in vain. Smaller and smaller grew the circle of dauntless spears that rallied round the King; fewer and fewer the devoted hearts that had sworn to stand by him to the last. And when night fell, and Surrey, uncertain yet of the event, withdrew his men, there were few of note left to carry the dark tidings to Scotland. The King himself had fallen, hewn down while fighting gallantly in his place; and around him lay no fewer than twelve of his earls, with bishops and abbots in their bloody armour, barons and knights and gentlemen. Somewhere on the hillside here lay scattered the Seventy of Selkirk—" the Flowers o’ the Forest;" with ten thousand of the brave and gentle of the North. And the shattered bands of wearied and wounded men that, all through the darkness of that awful night, went splashing northwards across the Tweed, were bearing with them a message that would wake the moan of anguish over the length and breadth of Scotland. Not a house was there of note, indeed, but had lost father or brother or son; and for more than a decade after the battle the Scottish lands were tilled, and the castles of the Scottish nobles held, by the feeble hands of women and of boys. The sorrow of that time echoes mournfully yet, in song, and must ever touch a tender place in thoughtful hearts.

A strange and terrible episode it seems, to have taken place in so peaceful a spot. As one stands to - day upon the fatal hill the far - off pageant passes before the eye of imagination like the wild and tragic magnificence of a dream. This, again, passes away, and nothing is left but the memory and pity of the past. But as the sun sets over the Cheviots in the west, through the golden haze that floods valley and strath and hill, the foremost firs and larches standing out upon Flodden’s side might be taken for the men and banners of some strange and silent host.


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